Elbert Arakawa
1399th Engineer Construction Battalion

Youth

No electricity, no running water, cracks in the walls, outdoor toilets, and a public bathhouse are all part of life in Wailea.

Elbert learns English in school and is fairly fluent by eighth grade. Speaking Okinawan at home is no hindrance to his excelling at Japanese-language school.

He swims in natural pools and picks mountain apples.

While working in the sugarcane fields, Elbert is mindful of bees and centipedes.

After we come back to Wailea, I went to school, English school [a territorial public school] this time and stayed through eighth grade.

Elbert Arakawa with sisters, Sadako and Juliet

Then my father wants us to keep on working the cane field but I said, “No, I’m going to go out.” My brother-in-law was in Aiea [Oahu] at that time. So I moved from Wailea to Aiea and then I stayed with them for one year.

[I was] about sixteen years old.

Working in the Cane Fields

While we’re at Wailea, I used to work with my older sister in the canefield, cutting cane, making bundles [of cut sugarcane]. We were slowbut we were kind of young yet then.

During the summer months I worked in the cane field with my older sister Haruko. I was thirteen years old and my sister was sixteen. We would get up around five o'clock in the morning. My mother made two lunches, one for my sister and one for me.

Rochelle and Lillian Arakawa. 1932.
Rochelle and Lillian Arakawa. 1932.

A man would take two rows one time and make a bundle, yeah. She take one row and I take one row and we would make a bundle. But this man that worked next to us, he’s fast. Cane fall down like this — he take ’em all up so we would get less in our bundle.

But if you tie the sugarcane up in a bundle and if it is more than sixty pounds, they deduct one pound, one point from you. So you cannot go over and you cannot go under. You got to be just about right.

No, no, excuse me. I take it back. If it’s anything over sixty pounds is okay. One man will come around and weigh each bundle.

We would walk to the working spot and started to cut cane. My sister took one row and I took one row. We made the bundle between us. Then as we progressed, two men with scales would weigh every 8th or 10th bundle. If the bundle weighed less than 60 pounds, they would deduct one bundle from the total number of bundles of cane we cut.

After it’s all finished, we had to carry that to the flume, where it’s taken to the sugar mill [of Wailea Milling Company]. Oh boy, that was a tough job. I think [the distance to the flume was] about ten, fifteen feet away. And so I said I won’t stay there all my life so better go someplace else and find my life.

You make two dollars a day, you good. When I first started working, summer months, you know, all the young kids work summer months, forty-five cents a day. Yeah, that’s the way it was. They go pay by the bundle.

[In Wailea, they] don’t burn cane. We harvest when it’s ready, the whole thing. And when it gets to the mill, they’ll separate all the dry leaves and stuff.

I remember one time I was holehole, they call it, removing the leaves. I didn’t know anything about the danger of bee, bee nests. I was going like this, all of a sudden a bee go shht-shht, you know, stung me, yeah. I took off, go outside. My brother said, “Ey, what happened?”

I said, “Oh, get bee nest over there.” He get a bundle of dry leaves and light it, burn it, and then put ’em right underneath the nest, burn the nest up. [My brother said,] “Now it’s okay, you can come back.”

So I stayed [worked] there for about three years. And my brother-in-law was already in Aiea as I told you. So I came to his place.

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When I came back from Okinawa, back to Wailea, no electricity, no refrigerator, it was some kind of life. And I saw only one car in the whole neighborhood area. The guy was able to buy one car.

The house was an old shack and the cracks were covered with newspaper. And at night you can hear the centipede crawling up. [Cracks in the wall,] between the two lumber. They just paste [newspaper] on. The centipede going crawl up.

But you taking a chance when you work in the cane field. This lady didn’t understand too, I guess, she supposed to tie the clothes up tight so that nothing can crawl up, yeah. So everything got to be tight. But she didn’t know and then the centipede got inside. They bit her from inside. She yell out. She take her clothes off, take the centipede out, yeah.

You can see the centipede crawling out when it rains, yeah. They all come up. And you walk in the place where get centipede crawling on the sugarcane. You get a knife and just chop ’em off. So you got to be very careful how you work.

We had individual house. My father bought a house in Wailea. [There were] three houses in our neighborhood. One was Filipino and this side was, the lower side, was Teruya.

So, small group of people there. But you know, plantation life. As I told you, no electricity. At night you got to go toilet, you got to walk about ten feet away. No more running water so you just dump it in. That’s the way it was.

Furo is further up, about half a mile up. Or less than half a mile. Anyway, it’s distant. You have to walk. We used to go early so we get clean water. The furo, one side is women and one side is men. And partition, of course. When you go early, you get inside the clean water ’cause you have to wash first before you jump in. So that was a good feeling, especially in cold weather, very good.

Activities

That area Hamakua, I mean, that coastline get a lot of rain. So we have gulches running [with water] and we used to go swimming once in a while, in the pool. So we had time together.

We played by ourselves. Do something, create something. They used to have movies once in a while that we all go and watch. That’s the kind of stuff. Not much. Then we had plantation, all the plantation people go to Hakalau, next door. They had a picnic. So it was good.

Honomu and Ninole [were there nearest towns].

Akaka Falls State Park, Honomu, Hawaii
Akaka Falls State Park, Honomu, Hawaii

We don’t go that far [to Akaka Falls]. We have a [natural] pool close by and whenever we have the chance we go down there swim. That’s where I learned how to swim. Everyone swimming, too, yeah. So I say, “If they can swim, I can swim, too.” Boy, I tell you. But we learn. Sooner or later you learn.

Chores

I hardly do anything. Mother used to do everything.

Mrs. Uta Arakawa making mochi. 1932.
Mrs. Uta Arakawa making mochi. 1932.

Well, my father had two horses. One was a red horse and one was a white horse. I remember my brother said, “Ey, let’s go pick up mountain apples.” So he put saddle on the red horse and saddle on the white horse and he pushed me up onto the red horse. The minute I got on the horse, the red horse don’t like the idea, raised his paw up, and you know, making lot of commotion.

So that saddle belt broke and I fell down. And my back hit the saddle, backrest. The horse was wild but I roll over and then I take off to the stable. He was going to pounce on me. I don’t know what happened. But that horse, I remember, not too long after that, he was in the cane fields just doing his job and he slipped. One of the cane was sticking out, hit his heart. He bled to death.

That’s the kind of thing we did, go pick up mountain apples. We don’t have much to eat so anything tastes good.

When we get too hungry we chew [sugar] cane. Nobody looking. I think that’s the reason why I got poor teeth and I have to have false teeth. (Chuckles)

School

[School] was good. I think I did pretty well. We had English school [public school classes] and then Japanese[-language] school after that [in the afternoon]. So both sides, yeah. It was interesting.

At that time, I think both ways is okay. Because when I first came in, I can’t speak one [word of] English, so I had to learn from the start. But the strange thing is that they promoted me to second grade the first year ’cause I was kind of mature, older, yeah. My brother was [promoted] from first to fifth grade, he jumped.

We can hardly speak English. So we gradually picked up. By the time eighth grade, I was able to speak pretty well.

[Being a kid who couldn’t speak English] not so good, no? But I don’t know, somehow you get by and you catch on fast. So it wasn’t that much problem. Yeah, there were other students that came from Okinawa in the class. So we’re not alone.

Japanese-Language School

For me [Japanese-language school] was easy because I was in Japan, in school, yeah. So I just picked it up. In fact, I was number two in the class. Number one was the principal’s daughter, was better than I was. I was right there with her.

[In Okinawa] they speak Okinawan dialect but when you go to school, it’s Japanese. [I spoke to my father in Okinawan.]

Elbert Arakawa's interview reprinted courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Photographs courtesy of Elbert Arakawa, Library of Congress, and National Archives.

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